I think the first time I became aware of oil pulling was back in 2004, when people began writing into the Foundation asking what I thought of the technique. Suddenly, this "ancient" technique was the latest in "detoxing" protocols sweeping the alternative health community. Being somewhat knowledgeable about detoxing, I had a fundamental problem with the theory behind oil pulling as it was presented, but found the testimonials on its behalf more than a little intriguing. My response at the time was not to dismiss it, but to put it on the back burner until it sorted itself out.
And now, some seven years later, I think my original read on the technique was correct. It definitely works, but the original explanation as a detox technique that "pulls" toxins out through the mouth is probably not correct. So, with that said, let's take a look at oil pulling: what it is, how you do it, how it works, its benefits, and finally, some recommendations on how to potentially enhance it.
What is oil pulling?
The basic technique is simple. Upon waking, you take one tablespoon of sesame or sunflower oil in your mouth and swish it around. Then spit it out. The details, however, are a little more involved.
- You need to do it first thing in the morning, before you eat or drink anything.
- You need to swish for 20 minutes -- give or take maybe three to five minutes. As it turns out, this is absolutely essential for the procedure to work. If you swish for much less than 20 minutes, it won't work. If you swish for much longer than 20 minutes, you run the risk of reabsorbing the bacteria and toxins back into your body.
- Effectively, you want to swish until the oil turns from clear and thick to a thin, white, milky consistency.
- You want to swish the oil back and forth between all of your teeth and side to side across all of your gums. You want to hit the cheeks and soft palate. Like butter on an English muffin, you want to "press" the oil into all the nooks and crannies of your mouth -- over and over again.
- Do not gargle with the oil. You do not want to risk swallowing it. Swallowing a little will not harm you, but repeatedly swallowing the oil after you've swished with it means you will be ingesting things that you're trying to get rid of.
- Once done swishing, spit the oil out into the toilet or sink.
- Rinse, gargle, and spit out again
- Use a tongue scraper to remove the coating from your tongue.
- Finish by brushing your teeth and rinsing with a mouthwash if you like.
- Perform daily for approximately 40-50 days (three 8-ounce bottles of oil will do the trick), then as desired.
Where does oil pulling come from?
As it was originally presented to me seven years ago, oil pulling was an ancient Ayurvedic technique for detoxing that had been "rediscovered." It was effected by swishing vegetable oil around in your mouth to "pull" all manner of toxins out of your body and into the oil in your mouth, whereupon you then spat those toxins out. Or to quote from the Indian Journal of Dental Research, "It is claimed that the swishing activates enzymes and draws toxins out of the blood. The oil should not be swallowed as it contains bacteria and toxins."1 As I said earlier, I had several problems with this description/explanation.
First, I wasn't all that convinced about its ancient Ayurvedic roots. Supposedly, it is mentioned in the Ayurvedic text, the Charaka Samhita, but whether or not you actually find it there, seems to depend on the translation you read. In some translations, it seems to refer to simple gargling. Then again, how ancient it is doesn't really matter. While it is true that there are many things that are old that are marvelously wise (like meditation and deep prayer), there are also many things that are very old that aren't so nice (like human sacrifice). The age of a healing technique matters not at all. All that matters is whether it works or not.
On the other hand, everything I knew about detoxing (which is quite a bit) had a problem with the concept of oil pulling as a detoxing technique. Detoxing tends to be specialized. That is to say, it takes different techniques to detox different organs. For example, you use a different technique to cleanse the liver and blood than you do for cleaning out the intestinal tract. And you use a different technique for cleaning out the kidneys than you do for removing heavy metals. Nevertheless, there are a couple of techniques that serve as general detoxifiers (saunas and cold sheet treatments2), but these make use of the entire surface area of the skin and take substantially longer than 20 minutes. I just couldn't accept the fact that oil pulling actually worked by detoxifying the body.
As for "activating enzymes," I had no idea what that even meant!
And yet, there was a substantial body of testimonials that indicated it absolutely was doing something to improve health. True there are no significant studies to support most of the claims, but let's put studies in perspective for a moment. They are not all they are cracked up to be. As I've explained many times before, studies as designed by the medical community, which are subtractive by nature, don't work well when it comes to multi-faceted, additive, alternative health programs. And for that matter, they don't work all that well when it comes to medical matters either -- frequently producing flawed and/or contradictory results. Indeed, medicine as a whole is much less scientific than you might think.
In any case, since I first became aware of oil pulling, the technique has amassed a pretty impressive list of testimonials on its behalf. And yes, I realize that just because you have smoke, it doesn't necessarily mean you have fire. Sometimes it really is just smoke. Nevertheless, if you have smoke, it's probably worth taking a look, just to be sure the house doesn't burn down. So let's take a look at some of the benefits attributed to oil pulling.
Reported benefits of oil pulling
According to an article on the Earth Clinic website3, Oil Pulling is reported to cure: "Mouth & Gum Disease; Stiff Joints; Allergies; Asthma; High Blood Sugar; Constipation; Migraines; Bronchitis; Eczema; Heart, Kidney, Lung Diseases; Leukemia; Arthritis; Meningitis; Insomnia; Menopause (hormonal issues); Cancer; AIDS; Chronic Infections; Varicose Veins; High Blood Pressure; Diabetes; Polio; Cracked Heels."
Or as Dr. Karach, one of the biggest proponents of oil pulling says, "The Oil-therapy heals totally headaches, bronchitis, tooth pain, thrombosis, eczema, ulcers, intestinal diseases, heart and kidney diseases, encephalitis and woman's diseases. Preventively the growth of malignant tumors is cut and healed. Chronic blood diseases, paralysis, diseases of nerves, stomach, lungs and liver and sleeplessness are cured."4
Now that's an impressive list. And interestingly enough, there may be some truth to it -- sort of. In fact, most of the benefits of oil pulling may actually be indirect results from the one benefit that it probably is truly responsible for: eliminating mouth and gum disease.
Gingivitis and periodontal disease
At any given time, there are more than 500 species of bacteria in your mouth -- some beneficial, some harmful. It is these bacteria that form the sticky, colorless film on your teeth known as plaque, the "gateway" to many health problems. When mineral salts in saliva combine with plaque, hard deposits known as tartar or calculus, which can't be removed by brushing alone, are formed on your teeth. Plaque can build up at your gum line, where even more bacteria can accumulate in the space between your gums and teeth. Toxins produced by the bacteria in plaque irritate your gums and cause them to become inflamed and bleed (a condition called gingivitis). This causes your gums to separate from your teeth, forming spaces between your teeth and gums (pockets) that become infected.
The toxins produced by the bacteria and the infection in these pockets can also stimulate a chronic inflammatory response in which your body turns on itself and the tissues and bone that support the teeth are broken down and destroyed. As the disease progresses, the pockets deepen, the inflammation and infection increase, and more gum tissue and bone are destroyed. This is called periodontitis.
In periodontitis, the connection between the teeth, gums, and jawbone is broken down -- in fact, your jawbone and the ligaments that hold your teeth to your jawbone are literally eaten away. If you think this is something you don't need to worry about, think again! Often, this destructive process has very mild symptoms (at first), so that many people are unaware that they suffer from it. About 75 percent of Americans have gum disease and don't know it! The bottom line is that periodontitis results in loosening of the gums from the teeth, and eventually loosening of the teeth from the jawbone -- not to mention bad breath and an increasing risk of life-threatening chronic illnesses, including:
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Respiratory illness
- Heart Disease
How can bacteria in the mouth impact so many other diseases in the body? First, once the bacteria have a sheltered breeding ground in the pockets that appear around your teeth, they can proliferate exponentially. They can then easily migrate throughout the rest of your body. In fact, simple testing of most people's saliva will show the presence of these bacteria. Considering how many times a day you swallow saliva, it's not hard to imagine where those bacteria can then travel. But perhaps even more important are the exotoxins and endotoxins that the bacteria produce as a simple byproduct of their very existence. It is these toxins, which cannot be destroyed by stomach acids or easily neutralized by your body's immune system, that present the bigger problem. In fact, these toxins don't even need to pass through your intestinal tract. Many are absorbed sublingually through the capillaries in your mouth, directly into your bloodstream. In effect, these toxins are the equivalent of being hooked up to an IV that is directly feeding low levels of poison into your bloodstream 24/7.
- Exotoxins are toxins that are excreted by living bacteria or released upon the death of bacteria. They are highly potent and can damage or even kill your body by disrupting normal cellular metabolism. Probably the best known exotoxin is the botulinum toxin, which is an excretion produced by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria as part of its normal metabolism. It's the toxic excretion that kills you, not the bacterium itself.
- Endotoxins, on the other hand, are structural molecules of the bacterium, usually found in its outer membrane, that are recognized as threats by your immune system. The primary endotoxin is lipopolysaccharide, or LPS, which triggers your immune system to release pro-inflammatory markers that can be so extreme that they lead to "endotoxic shock." Even a small amount of endotoxin will cause illness in humans; thus we can see the danger in harboring exponentially proflierating colonies of harmful bacteria in the mouth -- and the consequent health advantages in eliminating them.
To summarize: any bacterial infection in the mouth can easily spread throughout the entire body. Each time you swallow, more and more bacteria get to enter your digestive tract and potentially enter your bloodstream, as do their exotoxins and endotoxins which are released in your mouth. And if you manage to avoid swallowing hundreds of times a day by instead spitting repeatedly in a spittoon, you're still absorbing the toxins sublingually 24/7. All of this leads to a never-ending, low-grade infection throughout your body, not to mention never-ending, low-grade systemic inflammation. If nothing else, this taxes your immune system, leaving it less able to deal with other infectious threats as they come along.
Once you understand this, it is easy to see that if you kill the bacteria in the dental pockets and stop the flow of poison into your body, miraculous improvements in health are a distinct possibility. This would have nothing to do with detoxing. It would simply be the result of killing the harmful bacteria that are protected from your normal everyday dental hygiene.
The key here is that most of things that you normally do as part of daily oral hygiene cannot reach the bacteria buried in pockets. Brushing and flossing won't do it. Rinsing with a mouth wash, even one with antibacterial agents won't do it. And applying healing gels to the gum line won't do it. Only a water flossing device that applies a stream of water under pressure, if used properly, has a chance to flush out the buried bacteria. In other words, only a water-flossing device has any chance of eliminating the bacteria once they establish in the pockets. But here's where oil pulling comes in. It seems that oil pulling, too, may do the job -- and perhaps even better than water irrigation.
How oil pulling really works
There are several reasons that oil pulling is likely to be highly effective in killing the bacteria in your gum pockets.
- Most oils have antibacterial properties. Studies have been done on both sesame oil and sunflower seed oil that demonstrate their ability to kill bacteria. In addition, some oils, such as sesame oil also have anti-inflammatory properties.5
- The fact that oil pulling sessions run 20 minutes is crucial. It allows time for the oil to "seep" into the pockets. Unlike brushing, which only lasts a couple of minutes, or using a mouthwash, which lasts a few seconds, the extended time of the procedure keeps the antibacterial agent in the mouth long enough to work its way down into the protected pockets and reach the harmful bacteria where they live.
- Oil is, to put it simply, oily. It does what oil does. Unlike toothpaste which only goes where it's brushed, oil seeps into the nooks and crannies of your gums.
- The aggressive swishing and pushing of the oil back and forth across the gums aids in pressing the oil down into the pockets. Again, doing this for 20 minutes allows the oil to penetrate deep into the pockets.
The bottom line, though, is that if this is true, we should see signs that bacteria really are being killed in the mouth when oil pulling is practiced conscientiously. And in fact, there are indeed a handful of studies that support this contention.
- HV Amith, Anil V Ankola, L Nagesh. Effect of Oil Pulling on Plaque and Gingivitis. Journal of Oral Health & Community Dentistry: 2007 ;1(1):Pages 12-18 http://www.johcd.org/pdf/Effect_of_Oil_Pulling_on_Plaque_and_Gingivitis.pdf
- S Asokan, J Rathan, MS Muthu, PV Rathna, P Emmadi, Raghuraman, Chamundeswari. Effect of oil pulling on Streptococcus mutans count in plaque and saliva using Dentocult SM Strip mutans test: a randomized, controlled, triple-blind study. Journal of the Indian Society of Pedodontics & Preventive Dentistry. 26(1):12-7, 2008 Mar. < http://www.jisppd.com/article.asp?issn=0970-4388;year=2008;volume=26;issue=1;spage=12;epage=17;aulast=Asokan >
- TD Anand, C Pothiraj, RM Gopinath, et al. Effect of oil-pulling on dental caries causing bacteria. African Journal of Microbiology Research, Vol 2:3 pp 63-66, MAR 2008. < TD Anand, C Pothiraj, RM Gopinath, et al. Effect of oil-pulling on dental caries causing bacteria>
Given what we now know about oil pulling, it might be better to refer to it by its less common name, oil swishing, since there probably is no "pulling" of toxins from the body involved. On the other hand, it requires only a little bit of a stretch to say that it does "pull" bacteria out of your mouth and gum pockets. And you could also say that by absorbing the exotoxins and endotoxins present in your mouth, it is "pulling" pulling them too from your body. In any case, given its low cost and potential benefits, it probably makes sense to add it to your arsenal of health maintenance protocols.
But even more important, if we truly understand what it's doing and how it's doing it, we can probably tweak the technique a bit to make it that much more effective. Consider the following options:
- Add a teaspoon of tea tree oil (60 drops) per 8 ounce bottle of oil you use. That works out to 3.75 drops of tea tree oil per tablespoon of oil. In fact, studies have demonstrated tea tree oil's effectiveness against a number of oral bacteria.6 That's the reason tea tree oil is added to everything from toothpaste to mouthwash to "treated" toothpicks.
- Add a quarter teaspoon of limonene oil7 to each 8 ounce bottle of sesame or sunflower seed oil you use. Because of its dense electromagnetic field, limonene oil, which is extracted from citrus fruit, is one of nature's most potent natural solvents. It is also strongly antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. And finally, it works as a transporter to carry things through the skin. That means it will carry itself and the swishing oil through the gum tissue itself and directly into the gum pockets -- no seeping required. (Note: if you're allergic to citrus, limonene is not an option.)
- Although people have used just about every kind of oil for oil pulling, my recommendation is use what is known to work: sesame and sunflower oils. These two oils easily have the most anecdotal evidence behind them. And although people have used all different grades of oil, I would recommend using organic, unrefined, cold (or expeller) pressed oil.
And if you don't already own a tongue scraper, this is your chance to get one. Tongue scraping should already be part of your daily oral care, morning and evening. But if it isn't already, be assured that you will absolutely want to use the technique after oil swishing. (Note: using your toothbrush on your tongue won't do the trick.)
1 Asokan S. Oil pulling therapy. Indian J Dent Res. 2008 ;19:169. Cited 29 Mar 2011. <http://www.ijdr.in/text.asp?2008/19/2/169/40476>
2 Dr. John R. Christopher's "Cold Sheet Treatment". Dr. Christopher's Herbal Legacy. 29 March 2011. <http://www.herballegacy.com/Cold_Sheet.html>
3 Oil Pulling Cures. Earth Clinic Folk Remedies. Updated: 03/27/2011. Earthclinic.com. 29 March 2011. <http://www.earthclinic.com/Remedies/oil_pulling.html>
4 Karach, F., MD. Pulling Oil -- from a lecture given by Dr. Karach. Journal of World Teletherapy Association. APR -- JUN 1992. <http://www.oilpulling.com/PULLING%20OIL_karacharticle.pdf>
5 Mosayebi G, Ghazavi A, Salehi H, Payani MA, Khazae MR. Effect of sesame oil on the inhibition of experimental autoimmune encephalomyelitis in C57BL/6 mice. Pak J Biol Sci. 2007 Jun 1;10(11):1790-6. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19086539>
6 S Soukoulis, R Hirsch. The effects of a tea tree oil-containing gel on plaque and chronic gingivitis. Aust Dent J. 2004 Jun;49(2):78-83. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15293818
7 Limonene Oil. Health Products USA.<http://healthproducts-usa.com/30limonene.pdf>